Imagine if your job was to manage Airbnb properties for absentee landlords. It’s a reasonable job, after all it’s probably one of the strongest growth industries in Byron Bay. Imagine then, the irony, if you couldn’t find somewhere to live. If you were made homeless by the industry you work for. That’s the story of a Byron Bay woman who contacted me to tell me her story. I am not going to tell you who she is, because I think people deserve the dignity of anonymity. It’s one of the things you don’t have when you are homeless; a safe place where the world can’t see you. This person isn’t sleeping in the street, she’s staying in the garage of a friend. But she’s 56, she’s lived here for over 30 years and she has always worked. She’s working now. Plumping pillows, changing sheets, stocking fridges with champagne for people coming to have a holiday in the houses that our community used to live in.
I am going to call this woman Ann. I can tell by her voice she’s distressed. Several times in our conversation she starts to cry and apologises. I ask her about her sense of a future here, and she becomes very quiet. For a woman in her late 50’s to be living in a friend’s garage makes her feel insecure. Like she can’t relax. Like she doesn’t have any choices. She is aware that there are some that say she could ‘just move away’. They’re probably the same people who own homes, who need people to do the jobs that Ann does. But this is her community. It’s where her friends are. Her kids live nearby. Her grandchild is just up the road. She wonders, at her age, if she could move into a new community and make friends? It’s much harder as you get older, and when you’re on your own to find your way into new friendships. It’s not unreasonable to want to live in the community where you have a history. Where you have employment. Where you have extensive friendship and family networks. It’s not unreasonable to expect there to be affordable, pleasant accommodation.
Ann tells me, over the 30 years she has lived here she has always managed to rent large beautiful homes. It was always relatively affordable, and she was able to raise her daughters here. But she noticed, around five years ago, things started to change. That’s when she started helping people with Airbnb’s. She says it was when garages and granny flats started turning into Airbnb accommodation. She said she could see it coming – soon, there would be more tourists than locals.
Local low income residents in Byron Bay are the human koalas of our Shire. They too have lost much of their habitat. We need affordable housing now, not in three years, or five years, or ten. Now.
Ann has been looking for rentals. I am shocked by the prices of what she has been looking at. She tells me a three bedroom house is more than $1000 per week and some are more than $2000 per week. People are renting out their garages for $450 a week. Most garages aren’t even legally inhabitable. For someone like Ann she needs to stick to a rent budget of under $500 per week. That’s a lot for one person. And she doesn’t want to live in shared accommodation. That’s what she did in her 20s and now, at 56, she wants the dignity of being able to live in her own place. That’s a very reasonable expectation.
‘Every house I take care of used to be a home’ she says sadly. ‘Every one of them. Now they are full time holiday places. There are no houses for someone like me who wants to live on her own.’
So Ann has been made homeless. Our new homeless don’t fit the usual stereotypes.
‘I don’t have drug and alcohol issues. I am educated. I have a degree. I contribute to the community.’
Ann knows that she is one of the more privileged homeless in our community. She has friends and social networks and skills. She worries about people who don’t have the ability to advocate for themselves. People who don’t have anyone to look out for them.
‘I have a friend who is a single father with two teenage children, and they have nowhere to sleep. They have been sleeping in their car’.
Ann is angry. Understandably so. The situation is becoming critical.
‘In the ‘80s it was paradise, it saddens me to see I have helped to turn it into this place that has attracted so many self-entitled over-financed sons of rich city people’.
When you come on holidays and you stay in our towns you don’t see people like Ann. She may have changed your sheets, and made your holiday space sparkle, but she’s now living in someone’s garage. When you buy an investment property and you put it up for short-term rental, and make a motza, the plight of the Anns of the world don’t feel like your responsibility. But they are.
If we had a housing stress barometer, similar to the fire danger rating at the entrance to town, we’d currently be at ‘catastrophic danger level.’
There are so many stories out there at the moment of locals made homeless. To change the story we need to hear them. So often these stories are untold because people feel humiliated and shamed by their circumstances. That is not their burden alone – it’s a community story we need to re-write together. I invite you to tell me your story, or the story of someone you know.